In her excellent book Poor but Sexy, Agata Pyzik describes vividly the xenophobic attitude of people towards her when she first arrived in Britain in the 90s from Poland. It was nothing short of racial stereotyping; a view of post-Soviet women as mere prostitutes, probably as a result of eastern European women who unfortunately became ensnared in the global sex industry to escape destitution.
The book got me thinking. Has such stereotyping of Polish women changed, and is it in fact part of a much broader, deeper, profiling of Eastern Europeans and Russians in general? Despite the fall of the ‘iron curtain’ there still seems to be a psychological and cultural divide in Europe; an inherent split between west and east. After all, the terms ‘western Europe’ and ‘eastern Europe’ exist. Undoubtedly the term ‘western Europe’ today binds countries more through economics and culture than geography. In fact, ironically, Greece, according to the official CIA definition, would be considered western europe while Ukraine is most definitely eastern Europe.
The admission of ‘eastern European’ states into the EU has always had a mixed reaction from certain European quarters – particularly the Netherlands and Germany, the latter still staunchly opposing Romanian and Bulgarian entry into the Schengen zone. Ostensibly, the reason for this is economic, but is it quite so simple? Right-wing opinion in Britain has also been somewhat anti-eastern European, with Nigel Farage, leader of the increasingly popular UK Independence Party stating recently that he preferred immigrants from the Commonwealth to eastern Europeans:
“I do think, naturally, that people from India and Australia are in some ways more likely to speak English, understand common law and have a connection with this country than some people that come perhaps from countries that haven’t fully recovered from being behind the Iron Curtain.”
The concept that eastern Europeans may not understand common law is of course hugely offensive to the large eastern European population of Britain. But has this attitude really got anything to do with the Iron Curtain? It seems that this view is a much older one, rooted in history.
In his eighteenth century study of the Fall of Rome, Edward Gibbon promoted the widely-held view that Slavs were racially inferior. He noted that the Germans in particular were of the opinion that they were ‘less lofty, less fair’. This argument was utilised later in the 20th century by the Nazis who murdered thousands of Slavs with the mandate that they were ‘untermenschen’. Incredibly, the view was held that their “hereditary racial inferiority incapacitated them for state building” and they were “incapable of organising a state or developing a culture”.
Russia too, did not escape the ‘untermenschen’ stamp. Indeed, on a geopolitical level, it is interesting that President Putin repeats the need for ‘respect’ of Russia in the international arena. To some degree it could be argued that Russians themselves are responsible for such attitudes, as they too seem to have been persuaded of the superiority of western Europe from the moment Peter the Great embarked on his European tour; the result of which was a wholesale Europeanisation program that forever created an inferiority complex amongst Russians. First there was a love affair with France in the 18th century – wonderfully depicted in War and Peace – to the extent that the Russian nobility grew up altogether ignorant of Russian language and culture; and in the post-Soviet period there has been nothing short of an love obsession with the English-speaking world on a cultural level, with the Russian youth choosing to babble away in English as opposed to Russian. The very phrase ‘European quality’ — used as a selling point across Russia — says it all.
Closer to home, in my grandmother’s book The House by the Dvina, she colourfully describes the reaction of her great-great grandmother, a Dutch noblewoman living in Russia, to her son’s intention to marry a Russian peasant girl. In short, it was such a scandal that it became a story worth passing down the generations. Seemingly the family never recovered from it, although ironically, by the 20th century, her descendants were completely Russian.
It seems it is time for a change of attitude. In the 21st century such prejudices regarding the post-Soviet world ought to be disbanded. As Agata Pyzik rightfully asks: “What’s wrong with being ‘east’ anyway?”